What Is Seasonal Depression?

What Is Seasonal Depression?

Author: GIA Miami
Published: December 24, 2020

Have you ever had a case of the ‘winter blues?’ Do you ever find yourself feeling down during the cold winter months?

It’s true that the weather can have an impact on your mental health, especially as most of us associate warm, sunny days with holidays, beaches, and getaways. The association is a little less cheerful when you think of cold, gloomy weather.

Related: Depression Treatment in Miami, Florida

Don’t just brush it aside as a simple response to the weather, though. If you experience frequent mood changes and feelings of sadness associated with the seasons, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Seasonal affective disorder is not a separate disorder from depression - it’s actually a type of clinical depression that’s related to seasonal changes. It usually starts and ends around about the same time each year and is more common in winter than summer. Researchers believe that the seasonal pattern of winter (shorter days and less sunlight) prompts a chemical change in the brain, triggering SAD to set in.

SAD is not as clear-cut as it seems. Most people think of SAD and immediately relate it to winter, when in fact, you can still develop SAD in the spring and summer months.

Winter SAD vs. Summer SAD

Seasonal affective disorder can come in two forms: summer depression and winter depression. Winter depression, also known as fall-onset, is typically the most common and begins in early winter to late fall.

Summer depression, on the other hand, is a rare form of SAD that generally begins in late spring, lasting until early summer. Though the seasonal pattern that triggers each type is different, SAD symptoms are the same for winter and summer depression. Your mental health takes a hit, causing feelings of sadness and depressive episodes to set in.

Find help: Depression Therapy Miami

What Are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder symptoms are often similar to the symptoms of major depressive disorder, making it a little trickier to diagnose. However, it’s important to remember that SAD is not the same as depression - it’s simply a type of depression.

Some of the most common SAD symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad and/or having frequent depressive episodes
  • Frequent mood changes tied to the seasons
  • Negative thoughts
  • Losing interest in hobbies and everyday activities you once found enjoyable
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Cravings for sweet foods
  • Weight gain
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Insomnia
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Headaches and migraines

SAD occurs at a specific time each year, with symptoms usually cropping up and improving at around the same time. The symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are similar to a lot of other mental health conditions, so it’s always best to get a proper diagnosis from your healthcare provider before jumping to any conclusions.

If you’re having extreme symptoms like suicidal thoughts, get in touch with a medical professional or rehab center, such as ours, as soon as possible.

Related: TMS for Depression

How Is SAD Diagnosed?

Getting a prompt and early diagnosis is key to managing and treating SAD - this is because it often occurs alongside common mood disorders like substance abuse, major depression, and anxiety.

A medical professional will conduct a mental and physical health examination during a diagnosis appointment. Your healthcare provider will then talk you through the various treatment options available and outline which would be best for you.

If you have a co-occurring disorder, like anxiety or depression, your treatment plan may simultaneously target both disorders.

What Causes Seasonal Depression?

Seasonal affective disorder is a little more complex than other types of depression. Since there’s no set cause, clients often have to look at several factors to see what’s triggering their seasonal depression.

Though SAD doesn’t have one set cause, researchers believe it comes down to a number of factors, including:

  • Your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm - your biological clock - is responsible for regulating your hormones and emotions. Researchers speculate that shorter daylight hours and less sunlight can trigger SAD as it interferes with your natural circadian rhythm. When there’s less sun and daylight, you’re also less exposed to vitamin D - an essential vitamin for boosting serotonin levels.
  • Your brain’s serotonin activity. Less sunlight can also cause a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for regulating body temperature, behavior, and mood. This reduction of serotonin can cause SAD to develop.
  • Sleeping patterns and melatonin levels. Any small change in season can have a knock-on effect on your natural level of melatonin (a chemical responsible for your sleep). Less sunlight and shorter daylight hours are thought to cause a drop in melatonin, potentially triggering SAD to develop.
  • Age and gender. Seasonal depression is more common in young adulthood, particularly among women.

Risk Factors for Seasonal Depression

In addition to the factors noted above, a few risk factors can make you more likely to develop SAD than others. These include:

  • Genetics and family history. If your family has a history of mental disorders like major depressive disorder or seasonal depression, you’re more likely to develop SAD as a result.
  • Other mental health conditions. If you have other co-occurring mental health disorders, particularly bipolar disorder or major depression, you’re more likely to develop SAD.
  • Cold climates. If you live in the far North or South, you’re more likely to develop SAD due to being in an environment with shorter daylight hours and less sunlight. This results in less vitamin D being produced, which usually helps boost serotonin levels.
  • Lower levels of vitamin D. Even if you don’t live in the far North or South, you can still lack vitamin D because of your diet. If you have a diet low in vitamin D, you’re naturally more prone to developing SAD.

Leanne’s Story With SAD

"I was 18 when I was first diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder. Before that, I never even knew that it existed. Every time around the same year, I would have these depressive episodes, and they’d always be around September when there was less sunlight. At first, I thought I had major depression, but it would never last. Once summer came around, it was like this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. But as soon as winter came, I always felt like I wanted to hibernate. I had bouts of sadness and anxiety. I didn’t want to get up. I resorted to eating all my feelings away. I knew I had to do something about it, so I visited my healthcare provider to get a diagnosis. It turned out I had had seasonal affective disorder all along. My doctor helped craft a treatment plan for me with medication and some light therapy. Every week for a few minutes, I’d sit in one of these devices - called lightboxes - and after a month or so, my symptoms started to improve. I still try to prioritize my health with regular exercise and walks in nature, but it’s been a real game-changer. There is light at the end of the tunnel."

How Is SAD Treated?

Seasonal affective disorder may present similar symptoms for both winter and summer depression, but treatment options will vary slightly for each. If, for example, you attend our rehab center, we will talk through all of the treatment options that may benefit you, which may include:

  • Sunlight exposure. Spending more time outdoors during the winter months or taking in a few rays of bright light by the window every day could help alleviate symptoms and give you a much-needed dose of vitamin D.
  • Light therapy. Light therapy involves exposure to artificial light from what’s known as a lightbox. A lightbox exposes you to bright light for a few minutes at a time, boosting levels of brain chemicals like serotonin and melatonin. According to a 2020 study, light therapy can help effectively treat SAD and significantly reduce depressive symptoms.
  • Antidepressant medications. In some cases, you might be prescribed antidepressants or medication like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help treat SAD. This is especially useful if you suffer from other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder or major depression.
  • Talk therapy and psychotherapy. Talk therapy and psychotherapy can also be used to treat SAD and involves one-to-one sessions with a therapist. As well as improving your mental well-being, therapy can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms.

There’s no set treatment for SAD, and what you’re prescribed will depend on your individual medical history and circumstances. Getting treatment early can help prevent depressive episodes and lessen the severity of symptoms, so contact us as soon as possible if you are experiencing any symptoms of SAD.

How Can You Relieve Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Alongside clinical treatment, you can do a few things to relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. These include:

  • Exercising
  • Eating a balanced diet (even if you crave starchy and sweet foods)
  • Getting outside and getting more vitamin D during the winter months (best when combined with light therapy)
  • Steering clear of drugs and alcohol
  • Confiding in friends and family about your condition
  • Going to support groups

Treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder With GIA Miami

Suspect you might have more than just the ‘winter blues?’ Seasonal depression is very real, and preventive treatment is key to keeping your mental health in check and relieving symptoms.

At GIA Miami, we have a range of treatment options available for seasonal affective disorder, such as light therapy, talk therapy, and antidepressant medications.

Don’t suffer in silence. Contact our care team today, and they’ll help guide you through the admission process, answering any questions you might have.

Find Help for Seasonal Depression at GIA Miami

GIA Miami offers treatment for seasonal depression and a variety of other mental health disorders. Some of the therapies and services we offer include:

If you feel you might benefit from treatment at GIA Miami, contact us online today or call us at 833.713.0797.

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